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Paradoxes and contradictions are a part and parcel of this ever-on-the-move,pseudo-dreamlike city called Bombay rechristened to Mumbai. And one of the large and growing paradoxes of the city is the way in which the woman of the middle class comes into close contact with the woman of the low class vis-a-vis the great necessity of the elite/middle class called the servant. This necessity though great is hardly ever really talked about except in slandering the people who fulfil that necessity or when they put forward their demands regularly which are dismissed on an equally regular basis.

The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar explores this very paradox which is ubiquitous but never acknowledged. Quite a paradox within a paradox, eh? So what exactly is this paradox? To state it clearly, the rising middle class or those well established ones always hire a maid/servant (full time or part-time) to do the many chores while they are busy hurrying to offices or catching up on other important tasks like catching up on the latest conniving traps of the new saas (mother-in-law) on the block or going golfing/kitty parties and other some such silly stuff. So while the middle class will never otherwise really come in contact with the low class thanks to the rise of gated communities which makes sure that the ugly side of any place let alone a city is never revealed and is conveniently obliterated in the mind, they come in contact with them through the maids who become (usually of the women thanks to the never changing stereotypes of the roles of men and women!) great companions and friends sharing their lives and worlds which in any other situation would be unthinkable.

The novel elaborates quite evocatively on such a scenario with a touching prologue that captures so vividly the mental state of any city dweller at some point or the other: the need to just run away from all your problems, hoping that the city disappears and while you sit at the sea, hoping it will wash away your sorrows/frustrations etc. The story charts out the individual lives of two women who are world apart: Sera, a rich Parsi women who has had her own share of unhappiness in her married life and Bhima, the maid who works in her house and whose world is falling apart constantly even as she perpetually struggles hard to keep it all together. The story opens with Bhima’s granddaughter, Maya, getting pregnant- from a man whose identity is revealed at the end-which again though temporarily shatters Bhima’s world and all her hopes for Maya and her education which she thought of as her ticket out of the vicious hell of being a maid. Sera and Bhima share a fragile, precarious camaraderie which cuts across class and the usual stereotypes about how a relationship should be between a master and servant. Both have been there for each other in times of need-Bhima when Sera had to heal from her husband’s abuses and Sera when Bhima needed her while her husband was in hospital and other cases. Though they share a a good womanly friendship which is also seen in Sera’s daughter-Dinaz’s fondness for Bhima, the relationship is fraught with the several hesitations and doubts and stereotypes too.

The story weaves its way through Maya’s pregnancy while constantly going into flashbacks into Sera’s and Bhima’s life which work as good reminisces and a way to show how their lives merged and then into the present which stands like it always does with a lot of uncertainty while also being happy in its own small ways and then into the end which reveals the father quite un-dramatically like one of those mundane things you suddenly become aware of like how to chip vegetables or what exactly does a Bachelor’s degree mean or some such dross things that makes up what is called life. And then comes…oh wait…u need to find this on your own so go read it..

It is definitely worth a read as it is a poignant story because of its subject and the jarring clash of two worlds which brings fore jarringly the worlds we conveniently ignore-the struggles Bhima goes through just about everyday for basic necessities is something that would make us the people sitting cushioned in their AC rooms faint. The novel can be bogged down with over use of metaphors and similes but on the whole it is quite an engaging read.

The title, The Space Between Us, is quite appropriate as it questions the space that divide across class, shows how it can be reconciled or perhaps not. It challenges, questions, experiments with it, putting more questions forward but never answering any of them. That is for us to do.

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Today, Mumbai is obsessed with skyscrapers. The illusion among officials running the city is that high rises (that like its name also have high prices) with kitschy colours or made of crystal clear glass will help the city achieve that elusive status of ‘world class.’ No matter that half the population still lives without access to basic amenities like clean drinking water, proper toilets etc; as long as the city has the veneer of being world class, the have nots be damned. Redevelopment is the norm nowadays and a redevelopment of Dharavi is also on the cards; now whether this move is truly to uplift the people and give them better homes or just a ruse to make available vast tracts of land for greedy land developers is for the experts to decide. What is being missed out in this race for constructing tall buildings in the hope of emulating the Western ‘world class’ cities (remember the program of transforming Mumbai into Shanghai?), is that Mumbai is also home to numerous clusters of chawls, bungalows, smaller buildings, heritage areas that are being slowly effaced from the face of the city.

Once upon a time, a long long time ago, when the fad of high rises was still a distant dream, it was the chawls that dominated the topography of the city with just a few multi storeys towering over them. Kiran Nagarkar’s novel,’Ravan and Eddie‘ capture that time of Bombay by chronicling the story of the two boys of the title who grow up in the Central Works Department (CWD) chawls in Byculla. Set in the 1950s, the novel is a tongue-in-cheek tale that traces the two boys’ growth as they try and overcome the hurdles of living in the chawls and their own set of familial troubles.

The No.17 CWD chawl in which the two boys reside are themselves neatly divided on the basis of religion: on one floor live the Hindus and the other the Roman Catholics. The novel starts with the dramatic birth of Eddie Coutinho with his mother, Violet, in the ambulance just minutes after she lost her husband, Victor, whose only claim to fame in the novel was being infatuated by Parvatibai, Ravan’s mother and dying while trying to save him. Thus Eddie is born fatherless but with Father Agnelo by his side at the time of his birth. The novel then meanders its way snidely and gradually as both the boys grow up hating each other;one accusing the other of killing his father, the other believing in the truth of the accusation and finally convincing himself to be a killer. From Eddie’s dabbling in Hinduism, to Ravan’s tiffs with her mother, from Eddie selling black tickets of ‘Rock Around the Clock,’ to Ravan receiving letters requesting him to kill some irascible person in their lives, from the unending work of Parvatibai to Violet’s mum acting matchmaker for her, from Father Agnelo’s constant reprimands to Eddie to Ravan’s dad, Shankar’s unemployment, from the saga of the nine Sarang girls to the saga of Ravan’s mysterious lecherous aunt, ‘Ravan and Eddie‘ is a hilarious, bawdy post-colonial novel that will transport the reader to the very corridors of the chawls that have been so vividly recreated in the story

As much as, ‘Ravan and Eddie‘ is about the two boys, it is also about the life in the chawls and moreover, a subtle critique of the condition of independent India’s urban areas. The numerous digressions that interrupt the imaginative narrative are telling comments on the tough life of the people there. Kiran Nagarkar captures both the joviality of their lives along with their hardships with the digressions such as, ‘The Great Water Wars’ and ‘A Harangue on Poverty’ breaking the illusion of a problem free, happy, independent India. There are several other digressions that talk about other quintessential aspects of Indian life and don’t necessarily try and burst the safe bubble of independent India. What they have in common is a sarcastic and snarky tone that succeeds in making a point.

The overall tone of the entire novel is cheeky and sarcastic. Nagarkar’s writing is concise, to the point and doesn’t wander away unnecessarily. Like the hustle and bustle of the city and its chawls, ‘Ravan and Eddie‘ is also a bustle of incidents that are crammed into 330 odd pages that leave you in a huff and puff as you try and take in all the delights, adventures and troubles of the variety of people populating the story.

Go grab a copy and immerse yourself in a world where high rises just don’t exist and where chawls were not an eyesore but a living, breathing microcosm of the city.

Mumbai-a city you can have a love-hate relationship with, a city in which people think dreams are built (do they ever think that they are shattered there too?), a city fast moving, on the go, a whirling vortex that will push you into anonymity at times. Yet still we all live, die, dream and enjoy and curse in this bunch of islands reclaimed together to assume the shape of a city. ‘Sacred Games‘ by Vikram Chandra  is wholly enmeshed with this whirling vortex of a city whose one claim to fame is being the commercial capital of India. The story focuses on Sartaj Singh, a lone Sikh inspector in Mumbai police and in his forties, who gets an anonymous tip off on Ganesh Gaitonde, a dreaded Hindu don of Mumbai who any respectful inspector would kill to catch and get a promotion. Similarly Singh sees a window of opportunity in this tip off and soon gets to Gaitonde’s shelter from where he chats with Singh through the intercom telling him a winded tale of the start of his criminal life. Sartaj is unable to convince him to surrender and so eventually bulldozes the place and much to his chagrin finds Gaitonde and an unknown women dead already. Thereafter, the book weaves its way in a parallel of Sartaj’s investigation into Gaitonde (after Gaitonde’s death, the Indian intelligence comes to investigate this mysterious presence of the gangster in Mumbai and how he might have posed a threat to national security. Sartaj is recruited to help in the investigation) and Gaitonde’s narration of his life to Sartaj. The latter is rather eerie as it feels like the dead is speaking directly to Sartaj. Within these parallel stories lie countless number of subplots-Katekar’s (Sartaj’s partner) life and death, Katekar’s wife and his two sons, Sartaj’s other numerous investigations such as the case of blackmailing of Kamala Pandey, Sartaj’s mother’s ponderous moods, the Partition and how it affected Sartaj’s mother’s family, Senior inspector-Parulkar’s tactics to stay on the job, Jojo’s dreams of becoming an actress and several more. There are chapters in the novel called insets which can become novellas and short stories in themselves. These insets are related most often to the subplots like Sartaj’s mother’s sister, Navneet, being lost in Partition. Gaitonde’s life story reveals the grim underbelly of Mumbai’s mafia and how much of the city functions only because of them and the fighting between Gaitonde’s Hindu gangster company with the Muslim Suleiman Isa’s company seems faintly reminiscent of real life fighting between Dawood Ibrahim and Arun Gawli in Mumbai. Vikram Chandra has himself said that he did meet up real life ‘bhais’ in Mumbai and perhaps a lot of it is inspired by real life itself. We can only speculate and guess. What we can be sure of is that from this epic novel you can definitely get a lot of excitement and entertainment and thoughts to ponder over.

Sacred Games‘ is a massive book-900 pages long-quite daunting to look at and even more difficult to hold for long and if you are one of those who bought a hardback copy (like me) my utmost sympathies. But the size shouldn’t mislead you. The book is very engaging, eloquent and epic in every sense. It is difficult to categorize this novel-it is a mesh of a Bollywood film (and can be adapted into one as well given Bollywood’s penchant for action), thriller, detective novel, city novel etc. Pinpointing to one exact genre is next to impossible because of the sprawling nature of the book’s story which covers such a wide range of subjects and is written in multifarious styles that could be from any genre. ‘Sacred Games‘ is a wholly Indian book, a completely Bombay/Mumbai book reflecting Indian moods, issues, problems, daily existence, language. There is a generous sprinkling of Hindi terms, Bombay Hindi, Hinglish and Marathi too which could be hard for a foreigner or even an Indian unfamiliar with the special mix of Bombay languages to understand. On the author’s website, you can find a glossary for the novel which may or may not be useful. Click here to get it.   A little background knowledge about the 80s’ and the 90s’ scenario in India would also help in better understanding as Chandra routinely refers to actual events though he never names them explicitly such as the Partition, the Indo-China war of the 60s’, the Bombay riots of 1993 etc. The book is definitely for a true Mumbai inhabitant, one who will immediately recognize these events, feel a connection with the persistent smoke, traffic, noise and the islands of peace of the city, one who will know about the criminal underbelly of the glitzy city.

The detailing of ‘Sacred Games‘ is splendid. Chandra has done a fabulous job to string together vastly different lives/characters and put them together in the story thus creating a rich, multifaceted tapestry of Mumbai and its many quirks. Sartaj Singh is one of his best creations. He gives the inspector a humane personality which most mainstream portrayals of policemen lack. They tend to demonize them and constantly depict them as cruel,lecherous and sadistic in their behavior (which may be true of some but generalisation is always a dangerous thing to do). Gaitonde is suffused with a very Godfatheresque aura having the same paternalistic outlook towards his people and business as Don Corleone did.

The plot, the writing, the variety are all very fine and good but what eludes the book is any challenges on the author’s part. Vikram Chandra simply spins a yarn and puts it down in a 900 page book which is thrilling nonetheless but there is none of Chandra’s own opinions reflecting through in the novel. ‘Sacred Games‘ is too realist, doesn’t challenge anything. It only states that yes-the city is and will always be ruled by mafia-police-ministers nexus, women will forever be seen as sex objects, Bollywood will always be a dreamland etc. Catherine Belsey, a famous British Marxist feminist critic once asserted that realism only legitimised the actual society and their authors never challenged the several practices of the society: they only depicted it as it was. This is true of ‘Sacred Games‘ as well and the most damning of the ‘realist’ depictions are the inferior status of women in Indian society. The novel is very male centric and women are either only whores or depicted as dispensable dependable objects. There is a tacit subtext of the novel that women only exist to please men’s needs, to do their duty (Sartaj’s mother’s assertion that it is her right to feel happy in being alone after her husband’s death because she has done her duty is rather badly misogynistic. It implies that happiness only comes for women after they have been dutiful all their lives) for society i.e. to get married and procreate and take dowry with them. There are hardly any major, strong women characters barring Anjali Mathur, Mary and Jojo Mascarenhas and Iffat Bibi. This stereotyping fails to do anything except assert the ‘real’ world and does not challenge it. Moreover, there is a sense that Chandra seems biased against the Muslim community. It is a delicate thing to write about Muslim-Hindu mafia or the Partition but it shouldn’t have to hold fingers against a particular religious group. Manto wrote on the most sensitive topics around the Partition but he showed the inhumanity of it all rather than blaming either Muslims, Sikhs or Hindus.

Taken together, ‘Sacred Games‘ can be quite a task to read, but take the book one chapter at a time then there won’t be any problems in finishing this epic novel at all.

Despite the US and UK tightening their grip on immigration, the ‘foreign’ dream will perhaps never go out of fashion for the Indians. Immigration-whether forced or voluntary- explains the history of the Indian diaspora to a large extent. There is a reason embedded in history which explains why Indians are found in such a large number in South Africa or Fiji, where there has often been a lot of violence between the native Fijians and the Indians, and other places.

Literature, whether Indian or otherwise, has brilliantly captured (as it always does) the emotional, nostalgic and human elements involved in the process of immigration that goes beyond the numbers and figures that ministries and studies on this subject routinely throw at us.

Let’s take a quick look at two Indian authored books which provide varying perspectives about the idea of immigration and its implication on the people who embark on that journey:

1)  Title: Leaving India: My Family’s Journey From Five Villages To Five Continents

Author: Minal Hajratwala

Thoughts: Though it a non-fiction book which chronicles precisely what the title says, Hajratwala has wonderfully spun this tale of her own family’s (both maternal and paternal) forays into the different countries such that the book appears like history book narrating not the stories of great kings and queens, but rather a fateful story of an ordinary Indian family whose destinies were shaped by forces beyond them (such as the emergence of the indentured labour system, the failing art and crafts market in British India, etc). Let not the ‘non-fiction’ tag deter you from immersing yourself into this mesmerizing story because it is skillfully written with a charm and passion that is hard to find in other non fiction books as they tend to be drab and factual. Along the way, you might learn just a little something about the Indian history such as the connections Gandhiji had with South Africa(apart from the fact that he was thrown out of the train) and some such other tidbits which never make into our history textbooks. Minal Hajratwala traces her family history by juxtaposing facts with anecdotes and the former always explain the reasons for her family’s movements and successes across the globe.This helps a lot in understanding as to why Indians in general and her family members in particular migrated when they did.

Leaving India: My Family’s Journey From Five Villages To Five Continents‘ is truly an engrossing read that will take you on an enchanting journey across half the world while still keeping you grounded in your Indian roots.

2)   Title: The Namesake

Author: Jhumpa Lahiri

Thoughts: Jhumpa Lahiri hardly ever gets the fanfare she deserves. Actually, most deserving Indian authors are often lost behind the haze of cliched bestsellers. While we can argue this for an eternity, one thing is clear: that her second book, ‘The Namesake‘ is beauty personified. It is centered around the Gangulis, a Bengali family who move to the US for greener pastures. Ashoke Ganguli, the breadwinner, a student and later a professor and Ashima,(a very apt name for an immigrant as it means one without borders) his wife, have their first son whom they curiously name Gogol, after the not so famous celebrated Russian writer, Nikolai Gogol, which thus further adds to the child’s identity issues: he is caught between his Indian and American identities but his name reflect none of these two as it is of Russian origin. The story gradually progresses with Gogol’s growing up, dealing with identity issues and how his family members, particularly Ashima, deal with being away from home with hardly any relatives surrounding them. The story illuminates the life of the Gangulis as they make their way in an unknown country and gradually come to accept and even love.

The Namesake‘ is a poignant story that tackles issues of homelessness, assimilation, cultural and emotional identities, forging one’s own unique identity in a unique culture, displacement, diaspora, cultural and ideological conflicts, adjustments, generation gaps etc. But Jhumpa Lahiri explores all this with a quite emotional power that will hit you sensitively. There is a delicacy in her writing style that asserts the fragility of human relationships, asserts that they are precarious and can shatter anytime.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘Unaccustomed Earth’ is a collection of short stories that also deals with similar issues in the same characteristic style which is sensitive and beautiful. Click here to check out my review for this book.

Do you know of any more books that deal with this issue of immigration? Please feel free to share!

Step into the world of leukoderma and understand it complexity, problem and the various Indian superstitions revolving around it. Before you groan and go away, let me tell you that this isn’t a book a la ‘Emperor Of Maladies'(though I am told it is a fascinating book) but rather a fictional story of the struggles that a woman suffering leukoderma faces. ‘Mahashweta‘ by Sudha Murthy, from the synopsis at the back and the glittering praise from well established newspapers, promises to be a unique read that delves into the suffering of a disease that afflicts many but doesn’t find its way in the stories. Unfortunately, the novel fails to live up to those promises for which there are many reasons to which we will get back to later on.

Mahashweta‘ is aptly dedicated to women suffering from leukoderma and urges them to fight and not be oppressed by their disease. The story begins on a congratulatory note with the birth of a girl child which is a means to establish the single status of Dr. Anand-the successful, handsome and rich doctor- who helped give birth to the baby girl. Later while at his work, Anand is coaxed into buying a Rs. 1000 ticker for a play he has no idea about by the ‘incomparable’ Anupama. The play is a love story between Mahashweta and Pundalik and is part of the book ‘Kadambari’ written by Bhana Bhatta. Anupama plays the heroine and as expected Dr. Anand is mesmerized by her beauty and acting skills. After a few irrelevant incidents, they both get married(how predictable!) despite the difference in their economic status. It is only after marriage that Anupama develops a white patch and it begins to spread despite her clandestine treatment. When  her mother-in-law realises this, all hell breaks loose. She accuses Anupama of having tricked her son into marrying him and begins to consider her inauspicious because of leukoderma. She eventually returns to her father’s house, disgraced. Her evil stepmother’s taunts and ill treatment just worsens the situation. To top it all, Dr. Anand- being a doctor at least should know that leukoderma is nothing but a disease and not something that turns a person inauspicious-also does not support Anupama and abandons her when she needed him the most. Anupama, however, does not let the circumstances get the better of her. She bravely decides to go to Mumbai, away from her callous family and in-laws, to eke out a living and carve a place of her own free from any pain, stigma and stereotypes. She is quite successful is achieving her dreams and standing proudly on her own two feet.

Mahashweta‘ is a conventional story of the suffering bravely overcoming their difficult trials and tribulations. The only redeeming aspect of the story comes at the end when Anupama decides to remain her own master and be economically independent rather than being bound by someone else’s rules and regulations. Other than this, the novel as a whole is marred by a fragmented narrative, dollops of stereotypes, amateurish writing, no smooth narration and a very soap operatic treatment of the entire story. In fact, I wouldn’t be wrong in saying that ‘Mahashweta‘ is a soap opera in prose style as it has all the prerequisites of one-the constant preoccupation with marriage, the evil mother-in-law and sister-in-law twist, the evil stepmother convention, the too good to be true daughter-in-law who suffers silently, the narrow minded and religious focus of the story at time and the list is endless.

While Sudha Murthy does take up a relatively lesser known disease to tell her story, she does not break any new ground on it as the entire novel is steeped in too many stereotypes particularly about girls and marriage. For eg, on the first page itself, the nurse who assisted in the birth of the girl ponders over how the female child is stronger at birth than the male but later on becomes the one who suffers. The nurse attributes this as being ‘a fact of life’ which is not really true because being feminine or masculine is not a fact of life but rather a cultural construct. The system of patriarchy conditions women to expect suffering in their life. Anything that is exploited or oppressed is associated with the female sex. For eg. it is ‘mother’ earth and never ‘father’ earth. The novel is replete with such redundant stereotypes. Murthy may have wished to challenge them but she does not do a good job as she merely states them with no attempts at challenging them much like any commonplace Indian soap opera.

Moreover,her writing does not have the emotional depth that is perhaps required in such a sensitive story. Most of her attempts at philosophy(through Anupama) are also blunt and shallow.

Although, ‘Mahashweta‘ educates the reader about leukoderma and the debilitating superstitions that even ‘educated’ Indians follow, the novel becomes a drag to read. It reveals the hypocrisy of the Indian society in their attitudes to leukoderma but does not do so in a profound, erudite and  personal manner.

Final Verdict: It is best to skip ‘Mahashweta‘ altogether. If you really want to know more about leukoderma, then contact you nearest dermatologist. Or if you don’t have the time, then just click here to know more!

Wistful, melancholic, historical and isolated stories that cherish hope at times or relinquish  it completely is what characterizes the 20 selected short stories of Keki Daruwalla’s magnificent new book titled, ‘Love Across The Salt Desert.’ These 20 short stories have no thematic similarities as they portray a wide range of characters and surroundings from a disconcerted British officer during Quit India movement to the religious, intellectual and insightful Parsee father, from a sensationalist journalist to a deceitful doctor, from a loving granddaughter to a jilted yet content wife etc and from Rann of Kutch to the lofty, ethereal mountains of Niti valley, from the cultured pre-independence to the sleepy Gorakhpur, from the ancient India of Porous to the ancient Aegean regions etc.

Yet despite this disparity, each story has a perfect Aristotelian beginning, middle and end. Each story has ordinary humans (and even animals at times) at its core, dealing with their worries, hopes and problems, which may seem purely mundane but Daruwalla imbues than with a soft magnitude that touches the chord of every reader’s heart. This makes the insignificant details of daily life come alive and when told while focusing on only one issue, one hope, one worry, they achieve an importance that everyone can identify with. Thus we see in ‘the jahangir syndrome’, Kunwar Tejbhan Singh moving out of Lucknow and reflecting on the feudal system, the irony of a granddaughter not being there when her grandmother passes away in the story, ‘going’, the tender relationship between a mute and a cook who finds the former’s mimes fascinating in the ‘retired panther’, the warm, delicate, young love of Fatima and Najab across the bristling desert of the Kutch in the title story and many such more stories that delight the readers with its lucidity and clarity of places, insights, people and emotions.

From one story to another, the reader is treated to new images of India whether of the present, the recent past or its ancient past. The stories’ charm lies in the characterization of Indians( although there are exceptions) across all age groups, historical times, class and gender that underline their idiosyncrasies that proffer more information on Indian people than any erudite book could ever do.

‘Love Across The Salt Desert’ is a captivating and engaging collection of short stories that asserts Daruwalla’s status as a compelling short story writer. It is a book highly recommended that won’t be a waste of time or money but rather a journey all across India and its many moods and the world.

Deeti had never been anywhere near the sea. She lived all her live in Bihar, near to the holy river, Ganga. Yet not once did she doubt the cause of her strange vision of a ship-that it heralded a new, lucky destiny for her.

Zachary Reid had worked in a shipyard in Baltimore but had never thought that he would one day be voyaging to different parts of the world in ironically a slave ship, Ibis, that was to be refitted in Calcutta, India.

Raja Neel Rattan, zemindar of Raskhali, knew he was deep in debt but could have never dreamed it would result in his most humiliating downfall.

Paulette had not known any other religion apart from the natural world she was surrounded by.

Kalua, a Chamar, in Deeti’s village could not have foreseen how his life would forever change in one single, impetuous moment and get permanently entwined with Deeti’s.

Babu Nobokrishna Panda was a gomusta, someone who was in charge of transporting indentured migrants. No one could have guessed that he had a deep spiritual side to him as well and that he dreamed of building a temple for Ma Taramony, his spritual guide. He hoped one day she would manifest herself to him and in cherishing these two hopes he managed to secure a seat on the Ibis.

And Benjamin Burham, a self made man, owned the schooner, Ibis.

So what do the above and other many different characters from such a wide range of spectrum have in common? It is the rampant trade in opium during the British rule in India that ties the fates of so many characters together in the widely acclaimed book, ‘Sea Of Poppies‘ by Amitav Ghosh.

Ibis, the schooner mentioned earlier is to be refit for that exclusive purpose-to be able to transport opium from India to China-particularly Canton. It is this very ship whose vision erupted in Deeti’s head. It is this very ship through which all the characters in the novel are fated to meet, mingle and be irrevocably connected to each other.The ship, thus, too becomes a character in the book as important in its role as the opium which it has to carry.

The novel is divided into three parts: Land, River and Sea. In the first part, Ghosh establishes most of the characters’ lives and situations prior to their voyage on the Ibis, with the exception of Zachary who is from the start tied to the Ibis.  Thus we come to know of Deeti having the vision of the Ibis(she doesn’t know then that it is that particular ship) while bathing in the River Ganga. Deeti herself has a farm in which she is forcibly made to cultivate opium by the British. She has a daughter, Kabutri and a husband who is an opium addict and cannot do much work in the farm because of an injury he sustained as a solider. Similarly all the other characters’ backgrounds are quickly summarized along with the action of the plot. The second part follows Ibis’ journey from Ganga to the Black Water. While in the third part, Ibis is on the Black Water smoothly making its voyage across the ocean. There are not many hitches except for occasional rifts between Zachary and the first mate, the discomfort of the indentured labourers and not to mention the fierce storm that lashes the ship in the end.  While on the ship, several more characters are introduced particularly the indentured labourers and the numerous sailors and captains as well as a curiously monosyllabic prisoner addict. This division of the plot clearly shows the importance of the Ibis and fits in with the idea of it being a character in itself.

Going into detail about each and every character will be exhausting and tedious and will suck out the fun of exploring each character while reading the novel. It is suffice to say that ‘Sea Of Poppies‘ delves into the massive reach of the opium trade and how it brought together people that otherwise would have shunned each other because of caste, class, gender, religion and race. This opium is an indelible part of India’s history that ruined many farmers(just like indigo), trapped individuals in its addiction and obviously showered riches on all those who traded and invested in it. It is not different from today’s widespread trickling of drugs to all parts of society that creates drug lords. However, this aspect of our history is ignored and Ghosh does a good job of bringing it back from oblivion by weaving a story around it.

Like ‘Glass Palace,’ ‘Sea Of Poppies‘ too is a pretty much straightforward story with plenty of vibrant, quirky characters from all over the world. It is a compelling story,rich in detail and history, sequential in narration, building up various different situations that culminate on the Ibis. Ghosh’s research shines through in the novel. He enlightens the reader of the lifestyle of 19th century people. However, his tendency to deviate into lengthy unnecessary descriptions plagues this novel too. Apart from that, there are no cons to the story. He does a brilliant job of creating a colonial world obsessed with opium. One critic has even praised Ghosh for his sea/ship descriptions that according to the critic are on par with Melville’s. The profusion of characters does not mar the pace of the book but adds to its vibrancy.

Altogether, ‘Sea Of Poppies‘ is an awe-inspiring novel that throws light on how opium affected a large number of people either positively or negatively. It is massive in size and more so in its stellar story that is bound to enthrall all readers.

Note-‘Sea Of Poppies‘ is the first in the ‘Ibis Trilogy.’ The second book, ‘River Of Smoke’ was released in 2011. Its review is coming up next.

 

Try and remember the feeling you get when you touch or see a family heirloom,smile at at old,mildewed photos of one’s ancestors,open an antique cupboard stocked with old, hardbound books or turn the fragile yellowing pages of those books. These actions unleash a sense of a bygone era,preserved so remarkably that you can feel it coursing through your very veins by the most mundane of actions like brushing your fingers through your great grandmother’s necklace or running your fingers on the spine of an old book of poetry. For many people, the past is living with them through people or through certain artifacts. For others, it is completely dead and thus doesn’t matter. It represents different things for different people:pleasure, nostalgia,joy, passion,charm,love,heartache,anger,resentment,hatred…the list is exhaustive.

For Attia Hosain,it was meant to be remembered and written about. Her only novel, ‘Sunlight On A Broken Column‘ celebrates the past-a harmonious life in an undivided India. The novel elaborately describes a past which Attia has lived in and talks about the changes that her particular lifestyle experienced. The story reveals the ways of a bygone world which she lived in and through the written word, Attia has managed to preserve it and let the future generation know about it.

The story of ‘Sunlight On A broken Column‘ is set in Lucknow of the pre-independence era. Laila is the protagonist and the reader sees everything through her eyes. Laila belongs to a taluqdar family which is steeped in tradition,customs and religion. Since they belong to the feudal system, her family is undoubtedly rich and is rooted in Indian culture and strives to preserve it. The story begins with Laila’s grandfather, Baba Jan’s death and how it brings about certain changes in their family.

There is a prominent clash among the older and younger generation. The former gives utmost priority to duty to family,respect for elders, honour etc.. Whereas the latter, influenced by the independence movement as well as liberal education always question it. This clash is at its height when close to the independence, their feudal system, the very tradition and culture they rigidly followed for generations and for centuries was threatened.

There is not much of a plot but simply a chronicle of the lifestyle of the feudal system and the general atmosphere of those times. This chronicle is refelcted through Laila’s perception. The reader sees the world then as she saw it-when she was a pre-teen, a teenager, and later on as a wife and a mother.

Hence the mood of the novel is very nostalgic. It tries to resurrect the charm of those good old, undivided days when everything was in its proper place. It can even be called an intricate study in nostalgia. Attia Hossain’s writing is also marvelous. It is utterly delicate,sensitive and very descriptive. The reader also meets myriad,interesting characters from all walks of life.

Since, ‘Sunlight On A Broken Column‘ is very much descriptive, the pace is very slow and the story seems to be going nowhere. Attia Hossain tries to condense all aspects of those times in 300 odd pages which raises the question whether the story or the rambling descriptions take the plot forward.

Despite this, it is quite fascinating to read about life when feudalism existed,when respect and honour were obeyed to death, when Hindus and Muslims lived united  and peacefully, when society depended upon a master/taluqdar and laborer/peasant relationship to survive, when women lived in one part of the house and when traditions and rituals were religiously followed.

Attia Hossain brings to life all these and several more aspects of feudalism. This is perhaps the reason why her novel is titled so. She is trying to put light on a section or column of history that is not only forgotten but also broken.

The problem with reading an awesome novel by a particular author is the high expectations one has with the other novels and when that doesn’t happen,you feel heartbroken for both yourself and the author. And that’s exactly what happened with ‘Hullabaloo In The Guava Orchard‘ written by Kiran Desai. Having read her other, more famous, Booker prize winning novel, ‘The Inheritance Of Loss,’ which is quite splendid weaving strands of varying themes into a beautiful story, I built up many sky high praises for Kiran Desai. But, unfortunately, her debut novel doesn’t come close to her 2nd one. ‘Hullabaloo In The Guava Orchard,’ is a good read nonetheless, yet lacks the brilliance that lights up the storyline of ‘The Inheritnace of Loss.’

Taken from christophersrarebooks.com

The plot of ‘Hullabaloo In The Guava Orchard‘ begins with the birth of Sampath in an apparently middle class family living in a village named Shahkot. Then the novel does an Indian soap opera kind of leap and we see Sampath twenty years later, quite dull, and doomed as a failure by his father. Only his mother, Kulfi, has faith that her son will be able to be something in life. And ho! what do you know, he does manage to do just that. But not before getting fired from his clerk job in the post office and running away from Shahkot to be away from the misery of life. He then comes across a guava orchard and decides to climb on a guava tree and interestingly finds peace and solace over there. He feels uncluttered and unfettered on that tree. With a quirk of fate, he gets mistaken by a holy man atop a tree and his father gets a brilliant idea to juice out money from this venture. People flock to listen to his wise words and seek his advice and blessings! Sampath thus from being a good for nothing fellow becomes a famous Monkey Baba revered by one and all. Apart from Sampath, we get to see the rest of his peculiar family like his mother who relishes food and whipping up quite grand and glorious dishes. Then his sister, Pinky who falls in love with an ice cream seller, Hungry Hop.

The one word for this novel is eccentric. ‘Hullabaloo In The Guava Orchard‘ reminds one of the bumbling comedies staged during Elizabethan Age that had similar comic situations with myriad quirky characters. The book gives a satirical take on rural/town India and its obsession with godly figures. It highlights the dishonesty that prevails among the fake babas that spring up in all nooks and corners. Of course, Sampath never intended to become a Monkey Baba. He in fact wanted to run away from all things pretentious. So perhaps Desai is trying to bring out how holy men should be in their heart and soul? Well, one can interpret it in anyway one wants. The characters are also well fleshed out particularly Kulfi whose love for food has been highlighted since page 1.

While the comic ans satirical part of the book is perfect, its the Bollywoodish touch and the simple, immature writing and the weak climax that make the book rather disappointing. Its quite entertaining and funny in its ludicrous situations but not really a must read, though a fun read!

Well, you could either go for it and enjoy the fun or avoid it completely. Take your pick!

The dearth of Indian crime fiction has been partially saved by the novel ‘Six Suspects‘ written by Vikas Swarup, better known for his novel, ‘Q and A’ that was adapted into the Oscar winning film, ‘Slumdog Millionaire.’ While ‘Q and A’ was a rather amateurish, not at all researched book with bits of faulty writing, ‘Six Suspects‘ is a tad bit better. While it has its own flaws, it is nonetheless a pretty good detective/thriller story that exposes the corrupt India and has a story that will be lavished by detective fiction lovers/fans.

Taken from fantasticfiction.co.uk

The plot revolves around Vicky Rai’s (the son of the Home Minister of Uttar Pradesh) murder that took place while he was partying at his farmhouse in Delhi to celebrate his acquittal in a Jessica Lall style murder case(only in the book, the girl who was shot dead by Vicky was named Ruby Gill). There are essentially six suspects that are detained by the police as they were found carrying guns. Then, aptly, Swarup goes on and gives elaborate descriptions about all the six suspects and their motives to kill Vicky Rai. The six suspects are a motley crowd-including a sexy actress, an American,a mobile thief, Vicky’s own father, a tribal from Andaman and a former chief secretary of Uttar Pradesh. These stories are cleverly interconnected and intelligently converge at Vicky Rai’s farmhouse. In the end, an investigative journalist, Arun Advani, solves this murder mystery and the end is, I might say, quite unanticipated! The murderer is an unexpected one.

The story is well structured, with quite a few twists and turns that are definitely surprising.

Along with giving massive details about the life stories of all the six suspects, which by the way takes up a large chunk of the novel, Vikas Swarup also highlights the corruption rampant in India’s politics, displays the divide between the rich and poor and the different classes, the world of powerful contacts and influences and several more such instances that reveal the sleazy side of India.

Despite ‘Six Suspects‘ being a good detective read, it still has certain weak spots. Firstly, Vikas Swarup tries to put in a lot of information about India in the novel and most of it is sadly lifted from ‘breaking news’ sessions of the Indian tv channels that can get monotonous. This aspect makes it look like ‘Six Suspects was written for foreign audiences and Swarup was aiming for this book to be made into a film as well.  It seems there is a lack of originality. Secondly, certain ideas are rather stereotyped like the American’s view of India when he comes for the first time, the bit about Islamic fundamentalists is also very cliched(all Muslims are terrorists and all that crap). Although the story has an unpredictable end, there are times when the stories of the six suspects get predictable-for example, the tribal from Andaman has to be foolish and get duped by several people in India. Why can’t the tribals be intelligent for once?And there are several such examples.

There are certain creative bits as well like the English Literature professor ,which the former Chief Secretary met in jail, who expresses himself by uttering book titles only.

So the final verdict would be that ‘Six Suspects‘ is definitely worth a read, a good crime novel that unfortunately shows only a newspaper version of India and does not delve deeper into India’s chaotic soul. From the writing it becomes apparent that the India of ‘Six Suspects’ though very real still has a touch of being seen from a distant lens. The lack of research shows through. So if one knows nothing about India, one can probably grab this book to know about its underbelly and get some background on all the wrong things that happened in the country in the past decade or so.

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